The phrase “legendary football coach Joe Paterno” has been written and spoken an innumerable number of times in the past few months. The reason it has been used so often is because there is no better descriptor to put on the man who coached football at Penn State University for forty-four years, the longest tenure of any coach in college football history. His first year was 1966 when I was just a teenager and a big college football fan. It is probable that I would have never heard of Penn State University if not for Joe Paterno. I never did a lot of cheering for a football team from Pennsylvania but everything I knew of the coach was that he was a great man, strong leader, and known for his integrity.
Joe Paterno died this past weekend. The death certificate will note the cause of death as lung cancer or some other malady associated with the disease. He had struggled with cancer for a long time. But, neither his coaching nor his death has been the cause of so many newspaper headlines the past few months.
The legendary coach got caught up in a scandal involving one of his assistants who allegedly assaulted young boys. The reports indicate that Paterno was informed of the indiscretions by an eye witness. Apparently Paterno did what he thought was the right thing and reported the situation to his superiors. The problem was that his superiors did nothing. With the value of hindsight, many now blame Paterno for not being more aggressive. When all of this became public late in last year’s football season, the University fired Coach Paterno and he has been severely criticized by countless folks in the media.
Needless to say, Paterno’s death this past weekend has been big news and the media is looking for comments from everyone who might have an opinion. One of his ex-players was asked to comment and he said that although the coach had cancer, he really died of a broken heart. He went on to blame the University that chose to push the blame onto the coach and the media.
It caused me to wonder if it is possible for the media to actually kill someone.
Politicians used to say, “I don’t care what you say about me, just get my name right.” It was based on the assumption that any publicity, even bad press, was good. The important thing was to get your name before the public.
That is no longer true. Bad press is exactly that – bad! The media has become like a hungry shark, the slightest sight of blood in the water sends it on a feeding frenzy that is not sated until the victim is destroyed. Just ask Rick Perry, who was the savior who entered the Republican race for the Presidency until he messed up at a debate and then he became a Texas buffoon. Less than a month later he returned to Texas, his political career badly bruised.
This kind of thing has been going on for a long time. Remember the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta? A security guard named Richard Jewell located the bomb before it exploded and probably saved numerous lives. However, within days he was listed as a possible suspect. The press hounded him so badly that he went from hero to terrorist in the eyes of the world. Although he was eventually exonerated of any guilt, his name will be forever associated with a crime he did not commit.
In this day of an overabundance of information and the immediacy of communication, there are no secrets. There also seems to be very little discretion. It is bad enough that if you do anything, it is likely to become public knowledge in the immediate future. However, what is even worse is when the media attacks the innocent or pounces too hard on the guilty.
In hindsight, I agree that Coach Paterno should have been a little more aggressive and done more than simply report to his supervisor. But, does that mean we need to have reporters and news cameras outside his house twenty-four hours a day? Does he need to be the subject of daily news reports for a month? Is it necessary to destroy the life of an eighty-six year old cancer-riddled man with an impeccable reputation of integrity?
When I first heard his former player accuse the media of crushing his former coach’s spirit and draining the life from his body, my reaction was anger toward the media. He is correct; the media has way too much power in our world. Then I realized that the media only has as much power as we grant to it. The reason the sports networks ran this story continually, twenty-four hours a day is because I want to be able to turn on the sports channel at any time of day or night and get the latest news. The reason Fox News and CNN scrounge for garbage is because we need them to fill up the time for us. The reason grocery story tabloids print such scandalous stuff is because we stand in line and read them or put down our five bucks (or whatever they cost) and take them home. The media is only doing what we ask them to do.
Perhaps our anger at the media should turn to shame toward ourselves. They will not do better until we ask them to do better. Until then, they will continue to kill some of us.